Prison Break

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Prison Break

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

I keep being assailed by people who want to vent against the press. Lately, their chief complaint seems to be that mainstream journalists were not only duped by the Bush administration about its reasons for invading Iraq but were in fact cheerleaders for the mission. Those reporters backed Bush all the way, the complaints went, despite flaws in the administration's reasoning that were apparently obvious to these critics but about which reporters were somehow clueless.

It just goes to show how big a stand you can take with only minimal knowledge.

The subject has been coming up mostly because of the saga of Judy Miller, the New York Times reporter who was jailed in July for refusing to reveal to a grand jury the identity of a White House source who had leaked the name of a CIA agent. After 85 days behind bars, she was released last week.

The case arose in 2003, when White House officials - including the President's chief political advisor, Karl Rove, and the Vice President's Chief-of-Staff, Scooter Libby - revealed to a few reporters the identity of the CIA agent in apparent retribution against her husband, who had publicly poked holes in Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy enriched uranium in Africa.

One of the reporters was Miller, who did not actually end up writing a story about it. Another was Robert Novak, who did. Later, when a special prosecutor came calling, Novak evidently cooperated, while Miller invoked the time-honored tradition of protecting a source's identity, no matter what his motive.

And yet before the war began, Miller had apparently allowed herself to be convinced by some of Hussein's opponents in Iraq that indeed he had weapons of mass destruction and that the United States had better go find them. There weren't any, and The Times published a correction that, without mentioning Miller by name, clearly took issue with her reporting.

But that's a far cry from cheerleading the Iraq mission. There were plenty of other reporters, at The Times and elsewhere, who challenged Bush's claims. All you have to do, dear critics, is read carefully, and often.

As for Miller, she remains a polarizing figure, both within and outside journalism. She agreed finally to testify before the grand jury investigating the CIA leak after obtaining, she said, a telephoned assurance from her main source, Libby, that he did not require her to protect his identity.

But Libby says he offered her that assurance a year ago, and that he was surprised she sat in jail for 12 weeks to protect him.

That made the critics take notice again.

"Maybe, after her testimony, she can explain why the deal wasn't okay then and is okay now," Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post.

The Wonkette blog was more caustic. "We're still reeling," it said, "from Judy Miller's Houdini routine, simultaneously the least surprising and most galling prison break since Ford pardoned Nixon."

Some of Miller's most cynical critics have suggested that she chose to remain in jail for as long as she did to atone for her misreporting on WMD's, that a spell in austere confinement would restore her journalistic halo.

In Miller's own newspaper on Saturday, reporter Katharine Seelye quoted journalists as saying that, because Miller had revealed her confidential source, their right to protect such sources had been weakened.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics at the University of Minnesota, told Seelye that, in future cases, prosecutors might be tempted to tell judges, "All you have to do is stick the reporter in jail, and we'll get what we want."

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan